DOD suspends operational training for all Saudi students in wake of Pensacola shooting

The move comes in the wake of the Naval Air Station Pensacola shootings.

December 10, 2019, 6:42 PM

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has directed a strengthening of the vetting procedures for foreign military students studying in the United States and ordered a review of current vetting procedures in the wake of the Pensacola shooting that killed three Navy sailors and wounded eight others.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Navy confirmed the suspension of flight trainingfor more than 300 Saudi military flight students, but it was part of a larger safety stand-down and operational pause that the Pentagon announced later in the day and that limits all 852 Saudi military students in the U.S. to receive only classroom instruction.

In a memorandum to Pentagon leadership on Tuesday, Esper directed that immediate steps to strengthen the current vetting process for international military students who train on U.S. bases and ordered a formal review of the process to be completed in 10 days. The review will look at current policies and procedures for screening foreign students and granting access to bases.

"I direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (USD(I)) to take immediate steps to strengthen personnel vetting for International Military Students (IMS), and to complete a review within 10 days of policies and procedures for screening foreign students and granting access to our bases," Esper said in the memo.

"These efforts will seek to more closely align IMS vetting procedures with those we apply to U.S. personnel," he added. "With respect to specific training programs and personnel under their cognizance, the Secretaries of the Military Departments may take additional security measures as they see fit."

In the meantime, the 852 Saudi military students at U.S. military installations will not receive any operational training and will be limited to classroom instruction as part of a security and safety stand-down by the U.S. military services.

Esper said that the Pentagon is working closely with the Saudi government in its response to Friday’s deadly shooting incident that was carried out by a young Saudi air force officer.

"The secretary has placed a very high priority on this," a senior defense official said of the review.

Esper’s memo stressed the importance of the long-standing military education and training with Saudi Arabia, adding that the Defense Department has trained 28,000 Saudi students over the life of the bilateral security cooperation relationship "without serious incident."

PHOTO: The aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy arrives for exercises at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., March 17, 2004.
The aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy arrives for exercises at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., March 17, 2004.
U.S. Navy via Reuters, FILE

Earlier the Navy had confirmed that 303 flight students based at Naval Air Station Pensacola and two other Navy bases in Florida would not be flying for an undetermined period of time.

"A safety stand-down and operational pause commenced Monday for Saudi Arabian aviation students at NAS Pensacola and NAS Whiting Field and NAS Mayport, Florida," said Lt. Commander Megan Isaac, a Navy spokesperson. "Classroom training is expected to resume this week for those students."

The operational pause affects 175 Saudi students based at Pensacola and Whiting Field naval air stations, in the Pensacola area, and 128 Saudi students at Naval Station Mayport, near Jacksonville, Florida.

There are a total of 272 international military students at NAS Pensacola from a variety of countries. According to the Defense Department there are currently 5,181 foreign students from 153 countries in the United States for DOD-led security cooperation related training across all of the military services.

The operational pause in flight training will not apply to students from countries other than Saudi Arabia.

Last Friday, Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, a flight student at NAS Pensacola, used a handgun to shoot at fellow students in a classroom building at the base.

PHOTO: Mohammed Alshamrani in a photo released by the FBI.
Mohammed Alshamrani in a photo released by the FBI.

Three U.S. Navy sailors were killed in the shooting and eight other individuals were wounded by the gunfire. Alshamrani was killed in a firefight with local law enforcement officers who had responded to the scene.

Killed in the shooting were Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, of St. Petersburg, Florida; Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, Georgia; and Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, from Enterprise, Alabama.

The FBI is leading the investigation into the shooting and among other things continues to investigate whether Alshamrani acted alone or was part of a larger terror plot.

A senior defense official told reporters on Tuesday that they have not seen evidence to suggest a larger issue with Saudi students specifically.

ABC News' Elizabeth McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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